How to Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely
ANNA MILLER: As an acoustic ecologist and sound artist, Doug Quin, Tufts class of 1983, has traveled to the most remote corners of the world to record the sounds of nature. With a microphone in his hand, he has tracked down lemurs in Madagascar and trekked through the Amazon rainforest for howler monkeys. During one of his three trips to Antarctica, he even captured the unusual calls made by Weddell seals.
DOUG QUIN: And when you see them at the surface, they're big and fat, and they look like big slugs hauled out on the ice. But underwater they are absolute poetry in motion, and the sounds are otherworldly.
You can feel some of these calls through nearly six feet of ice tickling your feet in your big insulated bunny boots. It’s just extraordinary, the range and power in these voices.
MILLER: Doug spends long stretches of time away from civilization, often all on his own. But for him, being so removed from the rest of the world—even in a cold, forbidding place like Antarctica—well, it has a kind of joy.
QUIN: So when it falls quiet, and when there's not a lot of wind, which is almost constant, it really is some of the most profound sort of inner listening. You could hear your pulse, and very, very little else. And I'd say that's probably some of the most profound experience of both silence and isolation.
MILLER: This is Tell Me More, the Tufts University podcast. I’m Anna Miller.
JULIE FLAHERTY: And I’m Julie Flaherty.
MILLER: And today, we’re mixing it up a bit, taking a break from our usual interviews with campus visitors, to dive deep into the topic of isolation.
FLAHERTY: And we haven’t seen each other in about five months, right Anna?
MILLER: Right, everyone’s been isolating to some extent.
FLAHERTY: And some people, like Doug Quin, seem better able to handle it than others.
MILLER: So to figure out why, we talked to a bunch of people in the Tufts community about being isolated—
FLAHERTY: —from an acoustic ecologist in Antarctica—
MILLER: —to a Buddhist monk in the mountains of Nepal—
FLAHERTY: —to a neuroscientist who studies what loneliness looks like in the brain—
MILLER: —and we asked them, how do you be alone without feeling lonely?
FLAHERTY: But first, we have to point out a sad truth: Even before we had to isolate, a lot of us were already feeling pretty lonely. I talked with Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. He said he worries the pandemic is going to exacerbate a problem that is already plaguing society.
NASSIR GHAEMI: Loneliness, as a problem, has been reported for a long time.
About one third is probably a fair number to say of the general population feels lonely, and that's pre-pandemic. Post-pandemic, presumably, it's one half or more. It's probably the majority. So, the loneliness issue, I think, is a bigger one. It's about why in the general culture, in our society, when everything is going fine, still one out of every three people feels disconnected from others.
FLAHERTY: Despite the rise of social media, people apparently aren’t feeling as close to each other as they once did.
GHAEMI: People who invented Facebook and so on, they claim they're bringing people together, and they are, in a way, but they're also pulling people even further apart because the virtual interactions are replacing what real-person interactions existed before, which was already less than existed 50 or 100 years ago. So, I think there's a general decline in what other sociologists call "social capital," which is people being connected to each other in a way that enriches them psychologically.
FLAHERTY: So we’re already got an uphill battle against loneliness. But when I look at Quin, recording wildlife in the field, it seems like he was born to spend stretches of time away from people, communing with nature. So, are some people just made that way? To find out, we talked to someone who studies the biology of loneliness.
TURHAN CANLI: Yes. I'm Turhan Canli. I'm a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Stony Brook University.
FLAHERTY: He's also a Tufts alum.
CANLI: Arts and Sciences 1988.
FLAHERTY: We asked Canli why some people tend to feel more lonely, more often than others. He said part if it is genetics, as studies of twins have shown. But that doesn’t mean that your genes completely control how lonely you are. Canli says nature and nurture both play a role in building up the neural connections that fight loneliness.
CANLI: It's a little bit of genetics and it's a little bit of life experiences, and the two kind of interact with one another all the time.
Genes are quite dynamic regulatory little switches that get turned on, turned off, where the volume gets cranked up or down a little bit, depending on other signaling molecules. Some of those signaling molecules are released by social experiences. When you feel a surge of joy when you see somebody that you've not seen in a long time, there is a release of endorphins that comes with that, a release of oxytocin that comes with that. Vasopressin— there's a couple of hormones that play a big role in our social experiences.
FLAHERTY: People who tend to feel lonely don’t seem to get that same rush. Canli says one imaging study showed that people who feel lonely don’t show much activity in the reward centers of the brain when exposed to social experiences. And unfortunately, the effects are not just emotional.
CANLI: If you feel socially isolated, if you feel lonely, not only does it kind of hurt your heart, but it's also stressful, so you have the release of stress hormones that are in your bloodstream and affecting every organ, including your brain.
So people that experience high levels of loneliness also show not simply higher levels of emotional stress, maybe depression and anxiety, but they also show higher levels of physical illnesses such as cancer, inflammatory diseases, heart disease, cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease.
FLAHERTY: But before you worry that isolation is going to give you a whole host of diseases other than coronavirus, Canli points out that there’s a powerful antidote to loneliness…. Having a purpose.
CANLI: We've done some work in the past where we looked at the relationship between having a purpose in life and stress hormones that we measured in people's saliva when they were exposed to a socially stressful situation in a lab.
And what we found was that people that have a high purpose have a normal stress response, meaning that if they're exposed to stressors they will release cortisol, but then go back to baseline much quicker than someone who's lacking that purpose.
And one thing I liked about this study is that we didn't tell people what that purpose was. It was whatever it is to them. Everybody can find a purpose if they don't have one yet. The purpose could be taking care of others. The purpose could be obtaining some sort of mastery in a hobby. It could be finishing that book or it could be serving a higher purpose of some sort, whatever that is to you. If you don't feel that you have one now, then take active steps in trying to find a purpose for you. And that can be very empowering too.
FLAHERTY: Having a purpose makes perfect sense. It gives you a goal to focus on while you’re on your own.
MILLER: And some people choose isolation because it helps them meet a goal. I talked with one Tufts alum who chose a solitary and exceptionally long path to get to where he wanted to be.
CHRIS MARTIN: My name is Chris Martin and 2007 between my sophomore and junior year at Tufts, I did a northbound through-hike of the Appalachian Trail by myself. So I walked from Southern Georgia up to Northern Maine between May 17th after my final exam and August 19th just before I started back at school.
MILLER: That's amazing that you wanted to hike the AT just in itself, but why did you want to hike it alone?
MARTIN: Well, part of that was out of necessity. I went solo because I didn't know anyone who I thought would want to do it with me. They're not easy to come by – friends who are willing to give up an entire summer to walk. And also, you can move much faster by yourself. The fewer people you have, the fewer chances of an upset, an injury, a sickness, anything going wrong.
MILLER: So if you're hiking by yourself for more than 90 days, how do you keep your mind occupied?
MARTIN: I sang a lot of songs in my head and quickly realized that I don't know all the lyrics to many songs, as many as I thought I did. Just learned to zone out really well. You got to be really comfortable just exploring your own thoughts. There's a lot of introspection. Every day you just spend the first hour or so trying to let your mind go because the more you're thinking about what you're doing, the longer your day takes. You just got to zone out and daydream while you're walking. And it does take practice. Yeah, it did take practice.
You definitely have those days where you're just missing home, missing friends, missing family. And one of the beauties of being out there on the trail is you have no recourse. I didn't have a cell phone that worked or anything. I didn't have any way to contact anybody. It's just like, "Well, yeah, I'm missing home a little bit, a little homesick, but all I can do is keep walking.” I'd always keep telling myself when I was walking, especially in those first few months, "This is my life right now. Just get used to it. This is your reality for the next three months." Just don't give yourself an option mentally of leaving. Then all it takes is a moment of weakness and the whole thing's off.
The saying on the trail is hike your own hike. I mean, everybody's experience is completely different and there's no wrong way to do it. So, some people literally treat it as a walking party, and you'll see them go into town and hit every bar in town and stay there for a week and maybe do some quick contract jobs or pick up an odd job somewhere, washing dishes and just work their way up the trail. It might take them two years to finish. Then you have some people who are going for the records. I mean, there's this guy from Boston recently that set the record for unsupported through-hike on the AT, which was incredible. And there's no way to say that one of those is wrong and one of those is right. They have different goals and different experiences, but certainly, I'd say that hiking by yourself, you have a lot more opportunity for really introspecting and thinking about why you're there. I'm not convinced that everyone really knows the answer to that when they start, but certainly, by the end you do.
MILLER: Would you willing to share what was your answer to that question?
MARTIN: I think one of the reasons I ended up doing it is to prove that I could do something very difficult on my own, but also, something I got out of it is an ability to really reach out to people when I need help and be more open about talking to people. It kind of reaffirmed my faith in humanity. There were so many really generous and altruistic people that I met on the trail while I was walking. People who would pick me up when I'm soaking wet and smelly and drive me into town, or when I was up in West Hartford, Vermont, I was looking for a place to stay and this couple was on their porch—and this is one of the few places the trail goes right through town—they saw me walking by. They invited me in for dinner. They let me camp in the yard. They did my laundry for me. And they sent me off with some extra food.
Moments like that. I wasn't out there asking for it. They just called me in out of the generosity of their hearts.
It was definitely one of the highlights of my life, and I look back on it very fondly. Especially as things get hectic, I think about just the singularity of the goal then. It was really freeing.
FLAHERTY: OK, so having a purpose to your isolation, like hiking thousands of miles, can make a huge difference in how you feel about being alone. And everyone’s seen that inspiring story about Isaac Newton inventing calculus while he was isolating during the bubonic plague.
But the thing is, that’s not strictly true—Newton started work on calculus well before he had that time alone. And even if he didn’t, the pressure to achieve something great just because you have time to yourself might not be the healthiest motivator.
Jennifer Granquist, a staff clinician at the Tufts Counseling Center, has worked with high-achieving college students throughout her career. And for some students, isolation has only cranked up the expectations they put on themselves.
GRANQUIST: I'll talk with students and they'll say, "I just didn't do anything meaningful today and I feel a lot of shame around that."
There's some students I'll talk with about toxic productivity, like this pressure. Because we're seeing a lot of creativity out there, and I talked to a student recently who is like, "Well, I haven't finished this art project I'm supposed to do for this." There's this sense of shame around not being as productive as usual.
FLAHERTY: People feel like, "Oh, I have this, I'm almost on this artist retreat in my house, I have to produce, I have to make."
GRANQUIST: Exactly. So we talk about that in shifting the idea of creativity, where it's creativity to be productive, to be seen, to be thought of as this sense of, I was busy and then it affects my self-worth. Versus creativity for the joy of creating and feeling grounded in it and excited about it. You want to share it with other people, but it doesn't have the same obsession around self-improvement or like, I have to prove something to somebody else that I did this thing and I used my time wisely.
None of us had a class on “how to survive a pandemic” and “what to do at home.” It’s not an environment that we’re all used to, and I think sometimes working too hard can harm ourselves with this unrealistic expectation that you're constantly not good enough, smart enough, all the enoughs that trail through. Just building that self-compassion for doing the best you can.
Flaherty: I can see how it would be easy if there aren't other people to distract you or to interact with you, or talk about what you're thinking, that you can get into a loop of, "Oh, I should be doing this. I should be doing this. I should be doing better."
GRANQUIST: Right. It's like being caught up in a stream, in a stream, in a stream. So sometimes what's helpful with the mindfulness, to teach that to students is like, "All right, how can I bring you over to the bank of the river that's flowing?” Your thoughts are going, going, going. How can I help you come over and ground yourself on the side where you can see like, 'All right, is this thought true? What happens when I believe this thought is true?' Because when we're stuck in those loops, we're leaving all the thoughts, we're just stuck in this loop.
FLAHERTY: Rabecca Musiega, Tufts class of 2020, knows something about what goes through your mind when you’re isolated and it’s not by choice. Right now, she’s getting ready for graduate school and living with family in Nairobi, and you can hear that it’s a bustling household. But as an international student from Kenya, she spent many school breaks at Tufts pretty much on her own. Her first winter break, when most other students had left campus, was particularly hard.
It was a scary time and I think a very lonely time for me looking back. You try and watch everything, Netflix, as much Netflix as you can possibly watch just to get away from your thoughts. So I think it was almost like a combination of a lot of different emotions and different factors. First, just feeling sad and devastated for yourself and then also a lot of guilt in terms of, am I not making enough friends? Am I not acclimating as I should? Maybe someone would have invited me to spend Christmas at their house if I'd spent my first semester better or something like that. And I think the guilt come from, because I'm trying to get away from my emotions, I'm trying to distract myself with Netflix, with sleep. Sleeping in until 1:00 PM or whatever it is and then just feel guilty and horrible. So for me, it was just a lot of emotions and it was I really dark time, I think in my life, but also one of the most meaningful now thinking back on how that experience influenced so much of the rest of the three years that I spent at Tufts.
I started becoming really more cognizant of my mental health, because I think I've been raised in a community where people tend to don't talk about it too much. That's the environment that I was raised in, but it was an important time for me to start digging deep, to start getting in touch with what I was feeling and trying to understand that. So I think in that was a very sobering realization almost. It was like, it's okay to feel this way. It's okay to have that culture shock, that anxiety of being in a new environment, don't be too hard on yourself.
But in terms of positive impact, I think that was the break that I spent thinking more actively about what I wanted to get out of my college career. I remember writing my future plans and being like, "This is what I want to major in. This is why I'm interested in it." Because you just have so much time, so much time to think about everything, to think about your life.
I became very, very comfortable with being alone, with solitude and even it's something I seek until today. I need to go back, I need to recharge, I need to reenergize.
MILLER: We all need time to recharge, especially introverts. And maybe that’s one reason why Quin, a self-described introvert, said he revels in the quiet and solitude of his work in the field.
QUIN: The thing about wildlife recording is that it's very much a solitary activity. Being still, being quiet, being patient, is something that can be trying for a lot of people. Personally I enjoy it, I think you settle into a kind of zone, as it were, and the longer you're in the field, the more dialed in and sensitive you become to the rhythms that are around you, and they change from place to place.
Part of the journey for me, and what got me into recording and connecting with wildlife, really goes back to childhood enthusiasm. Never underestimate what tickles your fancy at the age of four of five years old, and like many little kids, I was interested in animals, I just never grew out of that. And I also grew up in a rather privileged situation, being the son of a diplomat, and had the opportunity to move to different places, which wasn't always pleasant as a kid, but in retrospect I'm deeply grateful for that.
I ended up in places; I grew up in Algeria, sort of on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and then spent a good deal of my childhood in Scandinavia and Canada and Scotland, so I've always been drawn to a sense of isolation that I identify with those places.
And I think when you move a lot, you don't always form friendships, or deep friendships, with people, because you're in motion, so I think you develop a capacity for self-amusement and entertainment, and for me, given my personality, I've always been a bit of a loner and an introvert, which doesn't mean that I don't have social skills, but I perfectly enjoy being alone. And I can still remember as a small kid wandering around the woods and playing by myself in the woods, and just feeling connected. So I think I've always been drawn to that. And yes, the ends of the earth can be remote, but through the eyes of a seven year old, the neighbor's back yard, deep back in the acreage, could also seem remote.
And when you think, the Western tradition does not place much value or premium on either silence or being alone. We tend to reward extroverts. We need to fill silences, either in conversation, or just go to any public space, a restaurant, a shopping mall, there's music piped everywhere. You're given basically no acoustic peace within which to sort of gather thoughts.
But I also recognize for some people, being out in the wild willies can also be a deeply disturbing experience, too. The isolation and the silence is not a comfortable place for a lot of people. So I kind of get that. But for me it's something I truly savor and enjoy and what comes with it is a sense of inner stillness, and I look at a lot of what I do as a form of moving meditation, or being absolutely still. It comes back to the idea of mindfulness, of being present to what's around you, and to not be distracted. In a way, it's very Buddhist in some sense.
FLAHERTY: Quin has a point. Isolation clearly has its good points. And it got us thinking—who would know more about the benefits of mindful solitude than a Buddhist monk?
TENZIN GACHE: People might know me, if they remember, as Brian Roiter, class of 2005. But after I graduated from Tufts in March of 2006 and not long thereafter, I took monastic ordination with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala in India, and His Holiness gave me the name Tenzin Gache.
The word Gache means somebody who makes people happy. So currently I'm staying in Maratika Monastery, which is in Eastern Nepal, in the Khotang district, in the mountains, not too high, but we can see the Himalayas, and Everest, not too far in the distance.
FLAHERTY: Gache may have been one of the last people on earth to hear about the pandemic—when other people were starting to confine themselves to their homes, he didn’t know, because he was already in a middle of a self-imposed seclusion.
GACHE: I was in retreat in a small home about a half an hour’s walk up the mountain here in complete isolation. There was no electricity, no running water where I was staying.
FLAHERTY: It wasn’t until he had to hike into town for supplies, and saw everything was closed, that he learned what was up.
GACHE: So it was a bit of a shock.
FLAHERTY: Gache told us he not only seeks out solitude, he seeks out loneliness. We asked if he could explain what he gets out of it.
GACHE: The Buddha talked about how one of the virtues a monk should cultivate is taking delight in being alone. So that was something that, as I first thought about being a monk, was something that I had to come to terms with. And there were a few things that were very inspiring to me. One was a statement by the great Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa, who said that, "You have to learn to make loneliness your spiritual consort." And to me, somehow when I heard that, it resonated very deeply.
Also another thing I read that really hit me was from the Christian monk, Thomas Merton, the passage he composed about being alone. And I can recite it now. I don't have it in front of me, but I'll do the best I can from memory. He said, "What the solitary renounces is not his union with other men, but the deceptive fictions that take the place of genuine social contact. In solitude, he discovers that he is not disconnected from others, but actually that he is fully connected to them. But at a deep and mystical level." So in both of these cases, I started to see being alone as a way, paradoxically, of connecting more fully with the world.
FLAHERTY: Gache said he first experimented with meditation and solitude when he was 17 or 18, and it wasn’t easy at first.
GACHE: I think one of the hardest things early on was a sense of feeling ashamed. In our culture, there's a very strong sense of needing to be popular or needing to be accepted by others. And there's a sense that if you're alone, then it's because you failed, you failed socially. And coming to terms with that experience, it took some time before I was able to feel confident in myself in being alone. And one of the first major experiences I had was when I went to do a retreat in the south of France at Plum Village monastery, which as some of you might know, Thích Nhất Hạnh, the famous Vietnamese monk, it's his monastery in Bordeaux, in Southern France.
So I went there for a three week retreat, and this wasn't a silent retreat. It was a group retreat and we were allowed to talk, but it was still the first time I'd been away from a lot of things, especially music. I used to like to listen to rock music. And I noticed throughout the three week retreat, almost all of the time, I would have one rock song or the other in my head.
FLAHERTY: But on the way home from the retreat, he stopped at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. And something clicked.
GACHE: When I was sitting at the cathedral, I was present with what was there and not trying to do anything in particular, but as I came out, I noticed that my mind was quiet. It was quite noticeable. It was something that I hadn't experienced before. So I went—and the river Seine is right next to the cathedral. So I sat down on the banks of the river and I think that I experienced my mind in a way I never had before. It was probably the most powerful experience I'd had in my life up until that point.
I felt like, there's something here, there's something that I need to connect to. And it's something that's going to be a long-term process, but this was the first step, that here I am with, with quiet, with my own mind, and feeling that this is so important that there was nothing— everything else in life seems very trivial.
Being alone is a way of creating space in the mind, it's similar to boredom. So both loneliness and boredom are things that we often see as negative. But the understanding here is that actually the only reason they're experienced negatively is because there's no longer anything to distract us. And when there's no longer anything left to distract us, then we experience our minds, which is uncomfortable because there's a lot of baggage piled up. So one option is just to distract yourself more. But the other option is to start going into that baggage. At first it just feels like discomfort, and you might just feel uncomfortable being alone, but after a while things start coming up, you start seeing that you're carrying a lot of different thoughts and emotions that aren't related to the present experience that you're projecting on in the present experience. And being alone is an opportunity to work with that and to be present with that.
There's a lot of things that are there below the surface, and the loneliness is just the tip of the iceberg.
FLAHERTY: Tell Me More is produced by Anna Miller and Julie Flaherty. Our executive producers are Dave Nuscher, Ronee Saroff and Katie Strollo. Web production and editing support by Taylor McNeil and Sara Norberg. Our music is by DeWolf Music and Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Douglas Quin for his field recordings. You can hear more recordings by him and other acoustic ecologists at the Soundscapes app. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Thanks for listening.